What's at stake in battle for votes

External  observers accustomed to the political dominance of the People's Action Party over five decades would have been jolted to hear Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong cast the next general election as "a deadly serious fight". What has the opposition done convincingly since the 2011 polls to stand a plausible chance of snatching the race, they might well wonder. Indeed, to public intellectual Ho Kwon Ping, who had broached the subject two months ago, the PAP's dominance was the likely scenario over the next 15 years.

Many observers would surmise that, in the context of the PAP conference, to close its 60th anniversary celebrations and rally the troops for the next battle, "checkmate" prognostications were in order to ensure that all minds were focused on the party's task at hand. After all, given its peerless track record, overconfidence might turn activists lethargic and put off the undecided. Worse, the faithful might just not turn up.

Every election is indeed a serious matter as it not just conclusively determines winners of electoral seats but could also reset the governance of the nation, when the seats won add up to a change at the top. On the surface, it might look like quite a stretch for the opposition to advance from seven elected seats to at least 44 to achieve that change. Against this, consider the 2011 trend of a declining vote share for the PAP in eight out of the 10 seats with unchanged boundaries. Also, taking into account PAP victory margins of a single-digit percentage point and lower in 2011 (affecting 34 seats), a strong showing by the opposition in the future could conceivably yield dozens of seats and help it to make a difference in Parliament. That's a big "if", of course. But what if?

Even if there were not a change at the top, an electoral swing could forestall a change in political direction. A divided polity would necessarily alter the dynamics of governance - for better or worse, depending on one's leaning. However, what will remain unchanged are the challenges facing the nation. Demographic trends and foreign labour; global competition and volatile economic climes; affordability of homes and health care; income inequality and slowing social mobility; a more cosmopolitan society and weakening family units.

Such multifaceted issues might resist orthodox approaches or utopian solutions, even when taken on their own. Making all the pieces fit workably from a national perspective would call for greater consensus, given the limits of economic and social resources. Discerning that golden mean will not be any easier when deep cleavages persist in society. Thus, when going for broke in election battles, one should not lose sight of what is really at stake in the long run.